Notes: Foul Play

Trivial Pursuit is a popular game, but too often it rewards the wrong answer

WHEREVER THE BOARD game Trivial Pursuit is played, testsy sotto voce demurrals are becoming increasingly commonplace. At issue is not only the ambiguous nature of many of the questions that the game poses; far more vexing to the ardent trivia buff is the inaccuracy of some of the answers it provides. American devotees who have been obliging enough to tolerate the game’s surfeit of Canadian subject matter—Trivial Pursuit did originate in Canada, after all, and more than three million copies have been sold there—are drawing the line at the bugs in its software.

In Trivial Pursuit the pace of a player’s progress around the board depends on whether he knows the answer to questions like “Whose army were canned foods developed to feed?”; “How thick is a hockey puck?”; “Who was booked with mugshot No. 54018?” The basic, or “genus,” edition comes with 1,000 cards, each containing one question on each of six general subjects: Geography, Entertainment, History, Art & Literature, Science & Nature, Sports & Leisure. A correct answer entitles one to move again. The game became chic in the United States last winter and was genuinely popular by late spring. According to Pezzano + Co., which publicizes Trivial Pursuit in the United States for the manufacturer, Selchow & Righter, Americans will have bought between 15 and 20 million copies of the game by the end of this year.

From the very beginning, however, it was plain to some that Trivial Pursuit was flawed. The tendency at first was to laugh off what were thought to be occasional slips. But many, if not most, contests conclude under clouds of protest, and these days amusement at the game’s errors is turning into irritation. While the makers of Trivial Pursuit have sought, in new editions of the game, to correct obvious mistakes—for example, the words “Oh brave new world that has such people in it” are now ascribed to William Shakespeare rather than to Aldous Huxley—the clean-up effort is far from complete.

The answers approved by the game’s creators still tend to penalize those who know too much. Lewis Carroll is credited with having “introduced Humpty Dumpty to the world" in Through the Looking Glass (1872), but the character appeared first in Mother Goose’s Melody (c. 1803). “Who said: ‘Honey, I forgot to duck’?” one card asks. The person who answers “Ronald Reagan; the president made the remark to his wife, Nancy, as he was wheeled into surgery following the attempt on his life in 1981” gets another roll of the die. The person who answers “Jack Dempsey”—whom Reagan was in fact quoting—does not. This sort of thing infuriates my father (among others). He says: “Dempsey made the remark to Estelle Taylor, his second wife, after the first Gene Tunney fight, in 1926, in Philadelphia. He lost the decision in ten rounds, and it rained.” My father uses the cards he disagrees with as kindling.

THE GAME’S FORAYS into Americana often run into snags. “What line divided the North and South in the U.S. Civil War?” is supposed to elicit the response “The Mason-Dixon Line.” Yet Maryland (a Union state) and Washington, D.C., both fell below that line. “Who was Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense?” Robert McNamara, of course, but what about Clark Clifford? “Who was the first black to star in a TV situation comedy?” Diahann Carroll is the given answer, disappointing fans of Amos ‘n Andy. On the matter of Billy the Kid, I am less certain but nevertheless uneasy. “Who killed one man for each of the 21 years he lived?” Yes, William Bonney, according to legend, but my father recalls that in his grade school textbooks the figure was always followed by the words “not including Indians.” He is inclined to count the Indians in.

At times the very formulation of the questions provokes confusion and dissent. “What race has the distinction of being the longest-lasting non-mechanical sports event?” “The Tour de France” is the sanctioned reply, but I, for one, consider a bicycle a machine. (I have no idea what the answer would be if the Tour de France were disallowed.) “Who was king of the Huns from 406 to 453?” According to the card, Attila was, but the dates represent his lifespan, not his reign. At what time did the mouse run up the clock? “One,” according to the game. But in the nursery rhyme, when the clock struck one, the mouse ran down. “What is the world’s largest oneperson residence?” “The Vatican” is the given answer, even though about 1,000 people live behind that city-state’s Leonine Walls. “What caused an adjournment of the 25th anniversary session of the United Nations General Assembly?" The given answer, Khrushchev’s shoepounding, in fact occurred during the 15th session. “What country accepted 75,000 convicts between 1790 and 1840?” Accepted? Did Australia really have a choice? “Which of Kahlil Gibran’s books is considered his masterpiece?” This query never fails to elicit a smirk.

What about this one: “How many Johns have been Pope?” Well, a number of men with names like Petrus, Octavian, and Baldassare have taken the papal name John, but not even the Catholic Encyclopedia provides an answer to the question as asked. How many Pope Johns have there been? One edition of the game gives the answer “twentythree,” which is hard to justify. (To be sure, Angelo Roncalli became Pope John XXIII, in 1958, but there never was a Pope John XX, and Pope John XVI was an antipope.) A more recent edition correctly says “twenty-one.” Needless to say, the fact that competing versions of Trivial Pursuit are in circulation is not likely to relax the hostilities.

Players respond in several different ways to the game’s deficiencies. One reaction is simply to withdraw any offensive cards, as my father does. Another is to retain all the cards in the deck but to allow any player to take exception — to call a gentlemanly “let,”as is done in squash — and then draw a second card. A third is to gloss the cards as disputes arise, adding a subtlety here and an alternative there, rewriting questions, and changing answers. In some circles the opponents serve informally as a kind of Supreme Court, deciding, after considering the cogency of your arguments and the vehemence of your objections, whether or not to “give it to you.”

None of these regimes, I regret, is entirely satisfactory, but reported mistakes are at least being corrected. You will find Selchow & Righter at 2215 Union Boulevard, Bayshore, N.Y. 11706.

—Cullen Murphy